When Gov. Pat McCrory asked federal officials in November to halt the resettlement of Syrian refugees in North Carolina, sheriffs from around the state sent a letter supporting his stance.
Durham County Sheriff Mike Andrews was one of nearly two dozen to sign on. Though he declined an interview request, Andrews offered this written statement:
“I am not opposed to families coming to the United States to live in peace,” the sheriff said. “My only concern is for the vetting process. Local authorities have yet to receive guidance or legal documents from the FBI or Homeland Security that would help identify the refugees, and instruct us on how to help them. There are no guidelines to follow or databases to check a person’s status.”
But according to Ellen Andrews, director of the Durham chapter of Church World Service, “refugees are by far the most carefully scrutinized people to enter the U.S.”
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She noted the U.S. has been resettling refugees for decades.
“This isn’t the first time that the question of security clearances and background checks and ‘how do you screen these people?’ has come up,” she said. “One of the things that’s getting looked over in this rhetoric is that there’s nobody who wants to make sure refugees get carefully screened more than the people who support the resettlement program. We’ve always been champions of making sure refugees are properly screened before they enter the U.S.”
World Relief Durham and Church World Services are two area groups helping to resettle between 200 and 300 refugees each year across Wake, Durham and Orange counties. The majority of immigrants come from Afghanistan, Myanmar (formerly Burma), the Democratic Republican of Congo, Iran, Iraq, Somalia and Sudan.
“Durham is very welcoming,” said Adam Clark, director of World Relief Durham, an organization that connects incoming refugees with support networks at more than 180 local churches.
Clark helped draft a resolution passed by the Durham City Council in October that explicitly welcomes Syrian refugees. The United Nations has called for international help to resettle more than 400,000 refugees fleeing Syria’s civil war. President Obama pledged the U.S. would accept 10,000 of those, but in the wake of the Paris attacks, half the nation’s governors asked the federal government to halt resettlement until the vetting process undergoes further scrutiny.
In the letter signed by Sheriff Andrews, N.C. law enforcement officials write:
“This is not a political issue, it is a public safety issue ... Our concern is the wholesale introduction of refugees who have not been properly identified as friends of America places our country in great danger.”
Clark said he hasn’t spoken with Sheriff Andrews yet about his stance on Syrian refugees, but hopes to do so in the near future.
A delegation from World Relief Durham and a legal team from Elon University recently met with officials from McCrory’s office to discuss the refugee screening process.
“I think a lot of new information was shared with them about how thorough the security vetting really is in the refugee admissions program,” Clark said. “They had a lot of great questions and, I think, had not realized how formalized and how thoroughly secure and well-vetted the program is.”
While Durham County Board of Commissioners Chair Michael Page said Sheriff Andrews “has every right to be concerned,” he added, “Durham has always embraced the underprivileged and those who are struggling to become independent and self-sufficient, and I don’t see that changing.
“From what I gather, there is public support for refugees in Durham,” Page said. “Durham is a welcoming city, and it’s not going to turn its back on human beings.”
Both Clark and Ellen Andrews said they’ve seen an outpouring of support for Syrian refugees from the Durham community since November.
“The various governors’ statements about not wanting to resettle Syrian refugees have resulted in a tremendous amount of media and political attention focused on refugee resettlement across the country,” said Ellen Andrews. “In our local office, we have really been inundated with calls and questions, and the vast, vast, vast majority of those calls have been from people wanting to express their support for the resettlement of Syrians in Durham; people wanting to volunteer, people wanting to know how they can help.”